Cricket: Richards strives to beat the clock: Martin Johnson reports on a supreme cricketer forced to acknowledge the erosion of talent by time

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OLD Father Time is never a more accomplished pickpocket than when he sneaks up on a professional sportsman and the ominous swish of the scythe is currently disturbing the autumnal air across the green pastures of Wales.

As spectators at Cardiff's Sophia Gardens sample the last of this summer's wine, the home team's No 5 batsman will be reflecting that he has trodden more illustrious stages than Glamorgan versus Derbyshire, and is doubtless wondering whether county cricket can next year provide him with one last hurrah.

Several years ago, Vivian Richards produced the piercing stare that has withered the world's finest bowlers for the benefit of the ad-man's camera, and he subsequently appeared on posters all over London advertising a pair of sports shoes. 'Also', went the accompanying slogan, 'available to mortals'.

Mortality, however, has now caught up with the greatest batsman of his generation. The beard is flecked with grey, the growth on top of his head is as sparse and stubbly as a spinners' pitch in Sydney. He will be 41 when he returns next summer for his final curtain call, in a game in which he has cut a higher profile than any of his contemporaries bar his great friend (and another one soon to be consigned to the old timer's gallery) Ian Botham.

Richards, we can be sure, wants nothing more badly than to turn his valedictory season into a glorious send-off. We could be surer still if it came from his own mouth, but these days he is rarely inclined to empty his heart unless he has first filled his wallet. No pay, no say, was the gist of his message. 'Man', he chuckled, 'at my age, I can't be doing nothing for nothing.'

He looked tired, but it probably had less to do with age than the dread of slipping quietly away without one last act to commemorate his greatness. It still rankles with him that the West Indian cricket selectors denied him (via a 30-second phone call from the chairman, Clyde Walcott) a place in the World Cup, and the lap of honour he craves will have to come with Glamorgan or not at all.

Richards hit five sixes in an entertaining 85 yesterday, but has not had a good season, and as an intensely proud man, for whom there is little in between feeling either high or low, he has found failure (by his standards) difficult to come to terms with. He now suffers from back trouble, but more pertinent is the probability that the eyes that allowed him to play breathtaking innings with no more than a cursory reference to the textbook, are not the lasers that they once were.

He also has problems with his concentration, getting himself out to pre- selected slogs, although the vintage Richards is never far away whenever he spots what he considers to be a real challenge. Glamorgan's players still talk with awe about the time Malcolm Marshall ran in to bowl the last five balls of a county game two years ago, with 12 runs needed to win, and nine Hampshire players dotted around the boundary.

Richards crashed the first ball through the offside for four, Marshall retaliated with a bouncer, and Richards hooked him for six, high into the block of flats outside the Southampton ground. In came the fielders, Marshall bounced him again, and Richards hooked it for a first-bounce four to win the match.

In Glamorgan's penultimate match at Canterbury this summer, Richards was confronted by a fast bowler in Martin McCague whose aggression is matched (not suprisingly for someone with an Irish-Australian background) with a gift for the short-syllabled gab. The thought of claiming Richards' scalp has more of a literal connotation nowadays, given that he continues to hook from an unprotected cranium, but McCague went the way of everyone else who has tried to bounce him out, and only those spectators diving for cover felt inclined to call for the helmet.

Richards' in-built disinclination to tug the forelock to anyone has served him better on the field than off it, where his instincts have regularly let him down in the field of PR. He has been known to invade a press box in his native Antigua to berate a reporter - the most remarkable aspect being that he should have been out on the field captaining the West Indies in a Test match against England at the time - and Richards' ambitions in the political arena sometimes conjure up the image of the Speaker of the Antiguan House tottering from the building with a mace wrapped around his neck.

His outspokenness has not always endeared him to his own selectors, neither has he remained free of political gaffes in a region in which, we are sometimes inclined to forget, is not a country in itself, but a collection of islands with different governments and ideologies. During that same press box invasion tour, Richards made a comment about being 'proud to lead a team of African descent', immediately alienating himself from the majority of Trinidadians and Guyanese, who are of Indian extraction.

Richards seems too volatile and irrational for politics (although some might be persuaded that these are precisely the attributes required for the job) but as there is no television pundit or PR representative retirement armchair for famous ex-players in the Caribbean, this is the arena in which he is liable to end up.

Meantime, Richards has one more year in office as an honorary Welshman, and it is a role he has taken seriously enough to be remembered fondly in the Principality when his time is up. 'He is remarkably sociable after matches,' said one of the senior players, 'and rather enjoys holding court and telling stories about his experiences in cricket. He is never less than interesting, and our boys enjoy it too.'

Richards is even, by all accounts, becoming interested in rugby, and has been known to make Saturday night phone calls from Antigua during the winter to find out how Mountain Ash have got on. However, what he really wants is a trophy to go out on, and as Glamorgan are not really equipped to mount a serious challenge for the Championship, this amounts to a one-day final at Lord's.

What better way for an ancient warrior to bow out than to doff his cap towards the Grandstand, upon whose roof is perched the only man to get the better of him. The man with the scythe.

(Photograph omitted)

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